Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide is the most mucked about with piece of theatre in the world, and there is nothing one can do except shrug one’s shoulders. As Voltaire’s philosopher Pangloss never tires of remarking, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
The trouble is that the most wonderful score – music by Bernstein, lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur, my favourite translator of Moliere - written in 1956, has a hopeless book, despite input over the years from Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim, John Wells, John Caird, Trevor Nunn, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
Now ENO director Robert Carsen and his dramaturg Ian Burton have gone for broke and set the show in the modern America of the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Ku Klux Clan, JFK’s Camelot and the moon landings, with the innocent adventurer Candide’s deceitful inamorata, Cunegonde, played unequivocally by Anna Christy as Marilyn Monroe in blonde wig and pink satin. It leaves the piece in an even bigger mess than before.
Full of cute, knowing detail and cheap gags, the approach makes nonsense of Voltaire’s satirical attack on Europe falling apart and Candide travelling to the New World, the land of El Dorado, where paradise and wealth are an even bigger source of disillusion than the nightmare reality of the Inquisition, natural disasters and inter-racial strife.
Carsen’s production (the ENO has joined forces with the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris and La Scala in Milan), designed by Michael Levine, is full of ideas but no passion, apart from that provided by the wonderful, dry-as-a-bone singing of Toby Spence in the title role and the conductor Rumon Gamba in the pit. And it palls pathetically in comparison with Jonathan Miller’s elegant, grey-costumed Age of Enlightenment Old Vic version twenty years ago and the superb, uncluttered National Theatre production by John Caird and Trevor Nunn in 1999.
The old lady with one buttock was played on that occasion by Beverley Klein, and here she is again, alas, feeling “suddenly Spanish” but swamped in effects. Alex Jennings extends his wry waspishness over three long hours as a bewigged Voltaire, doubling as Pangloss (the same trick as Simon Russell Beale played at the NT, more successfully), and there are jolly contributions from Simon Butteriss in a variety of small roles, Ferlyn Brass as Cacambo and Mairead Buicke as a coquettish Paquette.
But oh, the strain of it all, and the silliness of its unfocussed intellectuality! Even “Glitter and be Gay” didn’t cheer me up much. I much preferred Kismet; at least that had the honesty of its lack of conviction.